Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Diesel Fueled by Sidney Lumet

Master movie director Sidney Lumet was born on this day in history.  From 12 Angry Men to troubled news anchor Howard Beale taking over the live TV airwaves and proclaiming "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" in Network, Lumet gave us some true classics.

 Those two excellent movies plus The Pawnbroker, The Hill, Fail-Safe, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Murder on the Orient Express and The Verdict.  There were Lumet films that weren't nearly so excellent -- like the comedy Garbo Talks and his movie adaptation of the Broadway musical, The Wiz, starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as Scarecrow.  Jackson died on this day in history four years ago.  There were fine Lumet films that deserve more attention today than get -- like Long Day's Journey Into Night with a terrific performance by Katharine Hepburn as the drug addicted mother, Prince of the City with Treat Williams as a conflicted New York cop and the legal drama based on a true life story, Find Me Guilty.

To date, the  best movie performance that Van Diesel has given was as the lead character in Lumet's Find Me Guilty (2006).  It proved that Diesel is not a graduate of the Barbell Acting Academy.  With good material and skilled direction, he delivered the acting goods as the mobster who defended himself in court for what became the longest Mafia trial in U.S. history.  Vin Diesel played the low-level hood, Jackie DiNorscio.

The courtroom proceedings take on a bit of a live theater quality with a circus theme.  This infuriates the judge.  Is Find Me Guilty as good a legal drama movie as The Verdict?  No.  And it feels about 20 minutes too long.  But it's entertaining and I was fascinated to see the mature acting work Diesel delivered under Lumet's direction (seen in pic below with the actor).  Diesel does this while wearing hair, no less.  Find Me Guilty proved he's not just a flex-the-pecs action star.  He gave a smart, effective performance.
The film also has an actor now popular on HBO -- Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage.
This movie is worth another look to remind us that Van Diesel is not all Fast and Furious and gettin' butch with bitchin' hot wheels.  The actor can handle more challenging work.

About Network -- the classic satire of TV that won the Oscars for Best Actor (Peter Finch), Best Actress (Faye Dunaway), Best Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight) and Best Original Screeplay (Paddy Chayefsky) -- if you have not seen Sidney Lumet's 1976 film in a while, see it.  Network holds up.  It is still scathingly brilliant, biting and powerful.  As I have said to friends, when Paddy Chayefsky gave us that script, he was not just a screenwriter.  He was also a modern-day prophet.

When that movie came out, there was still a definite line between news and entertainment.  I paid to see Network more than once.  I was truly amazed by it.  As were my friends.  I lived in Milwaukee at the time and was a couple of years away from starting my professional TV career.  I vividly recall how audiences howled with laughter at the notion of the network newscast having a studio audience and a psychic as a regular contributor (Sybil the Soothsayer).  They laughed at Diana (Dunaway's network executive character) pitching new ideas...like a weekly show that followed a SWAT team and another one that followed a group of political terrorists.
Years later, TV got a reality show called Cops.  Look at our other reality shows -- Survivor, two hours of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette, Real Housewives, Honey Boo Boo.  We can call in and vote on what reporters should wear to cover the Academy Awards.  Reporters.  The line between news and entertainment has been erased.

TV today has become Diana Christensen in Network.  She won.

Twenty years after Network came out, I worked on a live news program in New York City that had viewer call-in segments with a pet psychic.  People called in to ask about their dead and living pets.

And we the viewers?  Well, with the Paula Deen racial slur controversy, today's Supreme Court decision regarding the Voting Rights Act, unemployment still widespread and many of us unable to afford healthcare...millions can still connect passionately to the rage of Howard Beale:  "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

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